Mechanics’ Institute

Is this the oldest purpose-built Mechanics’ Institute that has survived?

The Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle began as a “conversation club” in 1793, and by 1825 had evolved into a library and a meeting point where the city’s intelligentsia could debate matters of the day. Similar societies were formed in Manchester (1781), Birmingham (1789), Leeds (1819), and elsewhere. They helped the middle and upper classes to stay informed about the changes needed in a new industrial age.

Based on similar principles, but with more emphasis on the practical technical knowledge needed by working people, the first Mechanics’ Institute was established in Edinburgh, in 1821. In 1823 the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute evolved from an earlier institution. The concept of a Mechanics’ Institute then spread rapidly from Scotland to Liverpool and London (1823), Ipswich and Manchester (1824). Alnwick was one of the first established in the North-East. Like those in Sunderland and Newcastle it was founded in 1824. In Northumberland three more Mechanics’ Institutes would be founded in 1825 (Hexham, Morpeth and Tynemouth) but economic conditions would soon bring this early period of rapid expansion to an end.

In 1844 the institute estimated that about half of their members were “mechanics”. Today we think of a mechanic as someone who repairs or maintains machinery. In the 19th century it was a broader term, that also covered those who operated or used machinery. There would be no government funding of education until 1833, but an increasingly industrial society could see that it was important for such working men to understand the principles of their trade. A practical scientific and technical education for adults defined the core purpose for every Mechanics’ Institute. However, there were important nuances in the way that purpose was interpreted. Middle class professionals often took the lead in running the institutes, and some saw education as a route to moral improvement for the poor. Some radicals saw education of the workers as a weapon in the struggle for political emancipation. Wealthy patrons might have seen their financial contributions as a cost-effective investment in economic development. Whether they realised it or not, when the public meeting resolved to establish a mechanics’ institute in Alnwick they were exposing some of the tensions that were inherent in these different agendas:

“That such institutions for the instruction of mechanics at a cheap rate in the arts they practice, as well as in other branches of useful knowledge, is a measure calculated to improve their habits and condition and to add to the prosperity of the country,… ”

Others put this more bluntly. At the opening of Newcastle Mechanics’ Institute, for example, the Reverend William Turner left his audience in no doubt: “How much better it is to cultivate a taste for useful knowledge, than to choose the paths of dissipation, extravagance, and vice: and spend the time which they can spare from business in improving their rational faculties, rather than at the tavern, the gaming table or the brothel“. Here, in Alnwick, Tate describes some of the problems that began to emerge after the initial burst of enthusiasm. Some “looked with suspicion on Mechanics’ Institutes as likely to produce insubordination and irreligion”. Others “put a ban on politics, moral philosophy, and religion”. The result was that a number of restrictions were imposed on the range of subjects that could be covered. The scope of the institution became too narrow. There were too few people in Alnwick with an interest in mathematics and science to sustain an active society.

Alnwick was not alone in facing these difficulties. Nationally, and across the North-East, development of Mechanics’ Institutes stalled in the face of economic uncertainty and tension between different forces.

Mechanics Institutes offer classes in that brand of political economy which takes free competition as its God. The students are taught to be subservient to the existing political and social order.” Frederick Engels

Elsewhere, some institutes closed shortly after they were formed. Other early mechanics’ institutes struggled through the 1830s, and it wasn’t until the 1840s that they found their feet and the movement started to grow again. By 1850 there were around 700 Mechanics’ Institutes across England, and some have estimated that by the time the movement peaked there were 1,200 across Britain.

In Alnwick, though, a group of members, including George Tate (who was still in his twenties at the time) took over the reins in 1828. They breathed new life into the society. More conservative forces on the committee predicted failure, and resigned. They were mistaken. The society thrived. In 1831 it acquired permanent premises in Percy Street. Designed by William Smith, in “egypto-classical” style, the building cost £553, of which £278 was raised by subscriptions. John Lambert donated the land, and loaned the balance. The society would be paying off the debt for thirty years – it was not cleared until 1862.

This was a common pattern. When they were first formed a Mechanics’ Institute would normally rent rooms, but soon found a need for more permanent premises to hold classes and store libraries. The first building in England expressly designed for use as a mechanics’ institute was in Manchester. This opened in 1827. It became too small, was replaced by a larger building, and no longer exists. The Liverpool Mechanics’ Institute opened in 1835, and later became a school with former pupils that include Paul McCartney and George Harrison. We are not aware of any purpose-built Mechanics’ Institute from before 1831 that has survived. Alnwick Mechanics’ Institute may not be able to boast of having educated two members of the Beatles, but it could be the oldest purpose-built Mechanics’ Institute that has survived in England.

The original building in Alnwick had accommodation for the librarian on the ground floor, and room for the library, classes, reading, and lectures upstairs. It would later be extended at the rear, but the initial building could not accomodate larger lectures, which would be held in the Town Hall.

For most people the door is the most striking feature. The form is properly described as “pylon”. In Egyptian architecture a Pylon is a monumental gateway with two tapering towers either side of it. The tapering shape of this door reflects the tapering shape of those towers. When the Central Electricity Generating Board was creating the national grid in 1928 they needed 26,000 steel towers to carry the wires. Those towers were a similar shape to the tapering towers used for Egyptian monumental gateways, so to give them classical associations Sir Reginald Blomfield named them pylons.

Question: When did Alnwick Mechanics’ Institute admit women?
Answer: We don’t yet know, but it was probably late in the 19th century.

By 1844 the Mechanics’ Institute had 151 members (about 7% of men in Alnwick). At 2% of the town’s population this was a higher level of membership than normal for a Mechanics’ Institute, but not unusual for a smaller town. Compared to similar institutes in larger cities, those in smaller towns tended to have a relatively high proportion of the population as members. Alnwick was fairly typical for a town of this size. Different institutes varied widely in how they described their mix of members, but in Alnwick they reckoned that just under half were “mechanics” – slightly less than average at the time. Membership in Alnwick was relatively young. At the time there were only a few hundred young men in Alnwick, but more than 50 were members of the institute. Young men made up about 10% of the male population of the town, but a third of members of the institute.

In 1844, a report by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge stated that “strictly elementary classes ought to form a part of all Mechanics’ Institutions“. Typical classes would cover basic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, grammar and geography. Drawing was seen as a particularly important skill for workmen. Some of the Alnwick classes in elementary skills were professionally taught; other topics were learned through mutual support between members.

The Mechanics’ Institute also acquired equipment that members could use for scientific experiments. It would later establish a small museum, heavily based on the geological collection of George Tate. However, like other Mechanics’ Institutes, as they became more active in the middle of the 19th century, most of the emphasis was on supporting “rational recreation” through a programme of lectures and stocking the library.

The Mechanics’ Institute in Alnwick continued to avoid political subjects and religious controversy, but lectures covered science, history and literature. Some professional lecturers were employed, but most talks were given by members, and these examples demonstrate both the range, and the emphasis on scientific subjectsElectricity and thunder storms; Laws of motion; The Cartesian System of the Universe; The Steam Engine; The formation of dew; Extinct Organisms; Volcanic Action; The Boulder formations of Northumberland; Causes and effecs of high tides; Sturgeons and palaeozoic fish; The geology of the borders; Galvanism and the electric telegraph; Electrotype and the laws of galvanic action; the cottages of Northumberland; The organisation of reptiles; The circulation of the blood; Co-operative societies; The science of music; The sports and pastimes of the northern nations; Gothic architecture; The minor poets of the Elizabethan age; The Roman Wall; George Stephenson.

The Technical Instruction Act of 1889 gave local authorities responsibilities for adult education. Government was taking an increasingly active role in technical education and by 1918, the role Mechanics’ Institutes played in education for those beyond school-age had largely been taken over by art colleges and technical colleges. In some cases these also took over the buildings of a former mechanics’ institute. In other cases the library was taken over by the town for public access.

As membership grew in the 1860s the character of the institute began to change. Popular amusements were introduced, such as theatrical readings, musical performance, chess, draughts and quoits; a news room was supplied with papers and periodicals; lectures placed greater emphasis on lighter topics, and less on study. The institute was prospering and appealing to a wider membership. The building was extended in 1877. One of the front rooms was converted to smoking room. But before that, towards the end of his life Tate had written that “several older members liked not the change” and we can’t help feeling that he was one of them.

As the 20th century progressed membership of the Alnwick Mechanics’ Institute declined, and more of the space was used for indoor games such as billiards and table tennis. The building is now managed by the Town Council, which makes the facility available for community use. A range of activities takes place.

Historic England on Mechanics’ Institutes <here>.

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